Originally posted in a slightly edited form on French Football Weekly 28th April 2013
(Part one is here)
Lyonnais fans might want to stop here. The individual errors leading to losses over the last three months is quite simply staggering.
If we return to the close of the transfer-window at the end of January, Garde’s favoured defence was Umtiti-Lovren-Biševac-Réveillère, which was the back four when OL travelled to Corsica to play AC Ajaccio.
A lovely cross from Rachid Ghezzal for Lacazette to volley impressively gave Lyon a 1-0 lead away to AC Ajaccio, and at this time Lyon were top of the table with PSG and were being spoken of as genuine contenders for the championship. Four minutes after Lacazette’s impressive opener, Lyon collectively hit an undeniable and very apparent self-destruct button.
Attempting to clear the ball upfield, and with all the time in the world, Milan Biševac managed to lose possession in this position by kicking the ball at Filipe Saad, who found Chakhir Belghazouani to score the equaliser.
Biševac to Saad
Then, 8 minutes later, his defensive partner(-in-crime) at the heart of Lyon’s defence, Dejan Lovren, didn’t even jump when a cross came in from the left wing, merely watching the ball sail over him and land on Adrian Mutu’s forehead. Mutu seemed genuinely surprised by the ball reaching him, but reacted well to head in. Ajaccio 2-1 Lyon.
Lovren doesn’t jump, Mutu doesn’t need to
Not content, in the 90th minute Lovren brought down Dennis Oliech in the penalty box, earning his third red card of the season and a penalty for Ajaccio, which Mutu converted, 3-1.
Assuming that individual errors were out their system and the mistakes against Ajaccio were an aberration, Samuel Umtiti moved to centre-back for Lovren, and Mouhamadou Dabo coming in at left-back against Lille the following week. Instead Garde saw Biševac try to hold a high line with Umtiti whilst there’s no pressure on the man with the ball, and with a runner going outside the Serbian defender, as Lille hit Lyon on a counter-attack:
Biševac watches as the ball is played through the OL defence
Biševac also earned a red card and gave away a penalty for a deliberate handball as the attack pictured above reached the OL penalty area.
Worse performances were to follow, but before then, there was the Europa League and a trip to London. The games against Tottenham obviously focused the minds of Garde’s men: there was a 4-0 win over Bordeaux in-between those two Tottenham games, where Lyon didn’t have to get anywhere near the level of performance they did against Spurs to dispatch les Girondins with ease.
Shortly after those games with Tottenham, Lyon played out a 0-0 draw against Olympique Marseille where neither side were willing to risk going for the win, although OM looked the more likely to edge it of the two.
And then those individual errors that started to appear at the start of 2013 became more, and more, frequent.
Commit the sort of errors listed here against Tottenham, and Bale, Holtby, Adebayor and co would have run up a cricket score. In those two games the team was focused, well-drilled, and they were almost through to the next round to face Internazionale after taking the scalp of one of England’s finest. Perhaps that was on their mind as their travelled to Corsica again, this time to play Ajaccio’s neighbours from the north of the island, Bastia.
OL haven’t enjoyed the best of times at Bastia, losing 17 of their last 26 games there, but Garde couldn’t have imagined what would occur on this occasion.
At the end of the first half OL had a free kick which Gourcuff floats into the box – all the Bastia players are defending, and they have a three-man wall.
OL free-kick. Three-man wall for Bastia
After some head-tennis on the edge of the Bastia penalty area, a long clearance gives Bastia a two-versus-one break on goal whilst in their own half as both Lyon defenders and Gourcuff stand by as two of the Bastia wall head upfield. Bastia 1-0 Lyon.
The break past OL’s defence, and Gourcuff (marked with blue)
To say this is amateurish is to be unkind to amateur football. Olympique Lyonnais wants to play in the Champions League next year remember. More was to follow: early in the second half, with Bastia counter-attacking at speed, Lovren didn’t even hold up the play here.
Lovren unable to hold up Khazri
The Lyon centre-back half-flicked a leg in the direction of Whabi Khazri as the striker ran past him before laying the ball for Anthony Modeste to finish. One of the more straightforward goals Bastia have scored all year.
Khazri to Modeste and it’s Bastia 2-1 Lyon
That made it Bastia 2-1. The third goal was a repeat of the second, but with added comedy: the ball is played into Bastia’s right-channel for Claudio Beauvue, and as Lovren goes to check the threat he manages to fall over. Beauville brings the ball into the penalty box, pulls it back for Florian Thauvin, Bastia 3-1 Lyon.
Then, with OL trailing by two goals, the right-back Dabo tries to dribble his way out of trouble in a dangerous position: Khazri steals it from him, one pass through to Modeste later and it’s Bastia 4-1 Lyon.
With defending like that it’s obvious that Rémi Garde needed to change something. Anthony Réveillère was still injured, so for the game against Sochaux-Montbéliard, the full-backs remained Umtiti and Dabo, but he replaced Biševac with Bakary Koné. The Burkina Faso international isn’t the most composed of defenders, but he’s quick and determined, so the back four was Umtiti-Lovren-Koné-Dabo.
This is where Garde perhaps panics. Lyon are losing games to unbelievable errors, he decides to switch to a 4-4-2 with Clément Grenier as a left-midfielder and pair Lisandro and Gomis up front, although both strikers prefer to play as a lone-forward, and after three years at the club together they still look uncomfortable in a 4-4-2.
The game was as one would expect with one team shorn of confidence, the other looking not to concede, and both sides lining up in a 4-4-2: the teams cancelled each other out. Sochaux defended deep and tried to soak up pressure, whereas Lyon played a high line, lots of pressing, but to no avail as the respective midfield battles were tied – the closest Lyon got to opening Sochaux up was when Umtiti at left-back pushed up, with Grenier coming inside, looking to outnumber Sochaux.
And, of course, Lyon gave away two bad goals. The first was terrible marking at a corner: Giovanni Sio ran past a sleeping Umtiti to head in.
Sio, and Umtiti belatedly trying to mark him
With the score at 1-1 (Lyon scored through a penalty) and chasing a winner at the close of the game, Umtiti attempted a cross which struck the first defender allowing Sochaux to clear downfield. In a moment of madness, the covering defender Lovren managed to lose the ball to Sio, who took the ball downfield before playing it to Cédric Bakambu. Lyon 1-2 Sochaux.
Sio and Lovren
Next up were Reims, who have averaged three shots on target per game this season. Garde persisted with the unimpressive 4-4-2, dropped Lovren and recalled Biševac to partner Koné in central defence, but this did nothing to stem the tide.
OL’s Umtiti to Reims’ Devaux
Early on, from a goal kick, Umtiti headed the ball straight to Reims midfielder Antoine Devaux who played it first time for Christopher Glombard, and Vercoutre did well to save.
Devaux plays it through for Glombard
Umtiti, playing at left-back, also managed to appear unexpectedly in central midfield for no good reason, with Reims immediately playing the ball into the area he’d just vacated for the right-winger Diego who hit the post with a powerful shot. When it arrived, the Reims goal came from a familiar source, Lyon losing possession with Umtiti high up the pitch, the ball was played down OL’s left, and Biševac wrestling Diego to the ground with his arm wrapped around the winger’s neck as they entered the penalty area near the byline: red card (again), penalty (again), Reims 1-0 Lyon.
And then they travelled to face the defending champions Montpellier, which ended with Garde saying how lucky Lyon had been, and with MHSC coach René Girard storming down the tunnel in disgust as the final whistle blew.
Lyon’s individual and collective defensive failings were again present; able to look along the line to maintain the offside, both Dabo at left-back and Umtiti at centre-back play Anthony Mounier onside, who was unlucky to see his chipped shot go just over.
Two defenders, able to look along the line, play Mounier onside
Here, after giving the ball away in midfield, OL have to defend a break. It’s played out to Souleymane Camara, who’s being tracked by Koné. Unbelievably, Koné dives in now, and Camara skips past the challenge and delivers a low cross for Rémy Cabella, who saw his shot blocked by Dabo.
Koné prepares to dive in
There were other errors, too many to list, although El Kaoutari’s completely free header from a corner should probably be mentioned as he was in so much space, 8 yards from goal, that it was unclear who was supposed to be marking him. The defender should have scored instead of heading straight at Vercoutre, and Lyon escaped again.
Bear in mind that this isn’t a list of OL’s defensive errors over the last few months. These are the ones that spring to mind after watching a lot of Lyon. It’s not exhaustive, nor complete, far from it. I dread to think of what would become of Lyon’s defence if they didn’t have Gonalons sitting in front and protecting it.
Umtiti is an outstanding prospect, and will almost certainly develop into a tremendous player; Biševac came to Lyon from PSG only once Thiago Silva was signed; Lovren is a highly-talented 23 year-old Croatian international and reputedly a target for AC Milan, Internazionale, and Liverpool amongst others; Bakary Koné was part of the Burkino Faso side that won the African Cup of Nations by defending. These are not bad players by any stretch of the imagination, but they are playing badly.
As the 2012-2013 season got underway, Lyon sold Hugo Lloris, along with Manuel Neuer of Bayern perhaps the outstanding goalkeeper of this generation. Lloris’ deputy, Rémy Vercoutre has become the number one at Lyon, and over the course of the season has looked like what he is: a solid backup. That isn’t to be harsh on Vercoutre, he’s a decent keeper, but he’s been guilty of poor form too, and is clearly not filling the hole left by Lloris’ departure. Even chipping in with some howlers of his own this season, and with his kicking being poor (against Toulouse he managed to turn goal kicks into 30 yard passes to opposing forwards) this is adding more pressure on a young defence that is struggling for confidence and form.
Rémi Garde and the coaching staff need to take take some responsibility for a defence not being able to defend reliably for 90 minutes. There is something fundamentally wrong at a club that commits a vast number of errors over the course of not yet half a season – and play Tottenham over two legs within that same season and look defensively impressive.
And yet, the larger proportion of the blame is probably with Jean-Michel Aulas. Perhaps no other manager in Europe is in the position of Garde. Champions League football is demanded by the owner, whilst the owner himself is asset-stripping the club of its senior players. Ex-captain Lisandro has said how demoralising it was to see players leave before the start of the season, and then in the winter transfer-window Michel Bastos was sent to Schalke on loan for 18 months, a bid from Monaco for Jimmy Briand accepted (the deal broke down over personal terms), Gomis has turned down moves to Fenerbahce, Fulham and Rubin Kazan in the past as the club try to get him off the wage bill, and Lisandro himself was rumoured to be on his way to Tottenham. Little wonder he felt he couldn’t continue as captain. Little wonder they started to fall apart as team and look distracted within games. Watching Lyon over the last three months, the question shouldn’t be, ‘how did Lyon lose ground on PSG’, but rather ‘how on earth are they as high as third’?
Garde has made some mistakes with the side, that’s understandable as he’s still trying to find a long-term formula, but some of his statements to the press are baffling; before the home game against Toulouse he was calling on his players to remember that good performances for Lyon should earn them a lucrative contract for next season with a different club. It’s hard to imagine, say Pep Guardiola, using that motivational tool. Two weeks earlier, as Lyon switched to 4-4-2 against Sochaux in desperation rather than tactical master-planning, Garde was asked about the Ligue 1 title: “We will continue to believe in our chances. We’re not showing enough, but internally, among the squad, I can feel that the players also believe that we can do it.” Again, not a great rallying cry, or maybe something was lost in translation, but at that moment it was obvious he, and his squad, lacked any sort of confidence to get through the game against Sochaux (and they gave away two soft goals to prove it), let alone challenge for the title.
Garde is a smart, knowledgeable, and likeable man, and right now it’s impossible to judge his time at Lyon: he needs a season in charge of a club that isn’t selling its players or hawking them across Europe to various suitors. A team built around the talents of Gonalons, Grenier, Lacazette, Ghezzal, and Fofana could be a real force in French and European football for years to come.
So, how on earth did Lyon manage to defeat a strong Montpellier at Stade de la Mosson? A lot of fortune with their defending, and a healthy dose of individual brilliance from Clément Grenier.
All teams put at least one player on the edge of the penalty box when defending corners, it enables the defending side to launch counter-attacks, regain possession, or close down any opposing players the ball may fall to. Here’s how Montpellier usually defend corners, with Bryan Dabo fulfilling this role for MHSC.
Dabo on edge of penalty area
In stoppage-time and the game level at 1-1, the corner came in from Gourcuff, the ball is cleared and falls for Grenier, all alone.
He rifles a superb half-volley, totally unsaveable, making it Montpellier 1-2 Lyon with the last kick of the game. But where was Dabo for Montpellier? He’d been substituted in the 85th minute and his replacement either forgot or didn’t know his defensive duties at the set-piece.
It’s about time Garde had a little luck to call his own.